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  • Victoria A. Brownworth

Why raising the minimum wage matters

March 3, 2021 Philadelphia Gay News

As Senate Democrats struggle with Republicans to pass President Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID relief package, a secondary battle is taking place over raising the minimum wage. Progressives within the party, led in the Senate by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) are adamant that it must be raised, while the Senate’s two most centrist Democrats, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), are stridently opposed.

House Democrats already passed Biden’s bill with the Biden-Harris $15 minimum wage increase included. But last week, in an arcane move, the Senate Parliamentarian excluded the minimum wage increase from the bill, leaving progressive Democrats scrambling over how to get it back in.

Sanders proposed, then tabled, a separate bill. President Biden has floated the idea of a separate bill as well and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has repeatedly stressed in recent days that Biden is committed to raising the minimum wage. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she is committed to the rise.

Some on the left have put the onus on Vice President Harris, who could overrule the Parliamentarian through the Reconciliation process. Poor People’s Campaign co-chair Rev. William J. Barber II wrote a piece in the left magazine The Nation on March 2 calling on Harris to make the $15 raise happen.

But the VP can only overrule the Parliamentarian with 50 Senate votes for the measure. And right now there are only 48, because of Manchin and Sinema holding out and every Republican opposed.

If the measure is not passed through the Reconciliation process currently being used, which allows for a 51 vote passage, with VP Harris being the tie-breaker, raising the minimum wage would require 60 votes. And those are simply not there.

Sanders heads the Budget Committee and has been arguing for the $15 rise for years. On March 1, Sanders said in a statement “My own personal view is that the Senate should ignore the Parliamentarian’s advice, which is wrong in a number of respects. I am not sure, however, that my view at this point is the majority view in the Democratic Caucus.”

Warren has also sponsored a Wealth Tax bill, co-sponsored in the House with Philadelphia congressman Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-PA) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA). That bill would tax America’s billionaires at 2%, creating $78 billion in revenue from just 100 Americans.

Warren’s Wealth Tax numbers put the fight for $15 in stark relief.

Raising the minimum wage is, above all, a gender issue. Nearly 80 percent of minimum wage workers in the U.S. are women. This is largely due to occupational segregation and undervaluing of women’s work.

Among those women making minimum wage, Black, Latinx, Native American, lesbian, bisexual and trans women are disproportionately represented due to structural sexism and racism, homophobia and transphobia. More than half (51%) of workers who would benefit from raising the minimum wage are adults between the ages of 25 and 54, the prime age for accruing savings and wealth.

Women are overrepresented in minimum wage jobs, most of which skew female: jobs in the hospitality and healthcare industries, retail work, low-level factory jobs like clothing makers, childcare work and teaching assistants.

Recent studies from the Movement Advancement Project and UCLA’s Williams Institute, which I reported on for PGN, show that LBT women have been badly hurt in the COVID-related economic crisis, with significant job loss, personal financial crises and food insecurity. Seventy percent of all jobs lost in the pandemic-related economic crisis have been lost by women. In December, as I reported for PGN, all the jobs lost — 140,000 — were by women.

“Women are really feeling the effects of this coronavirus pandemic,” said Diana Boesch, a policy analyst for women’s economic security at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.

The federal minimum hourly wage is just $7.25. Congress has not increased it since 2009, the longest hiatus in history. The annual salary of a minimum wage worker is below the federal poverty guidelines. In Philadelphia, the poorest big city in America with close to a third of Philadelphians living at or below the poverty level, a majority of those living in poverty are making minimum wage at one or more jobs.

Over a fifth of American workers are minimum wage workers. Raising the minimum wage would automatically lift 20 million women out of poverty, with at least 6% of those women being LBT.

The provision that was included in the latest stimulus package would have both raised the federal minimum wage to $15 over time and eliminated the tipped minimum wage altogether.

Ending sub-minimum wages — the wages of tipped workers, workers with disabilities and workers under age 20 — which has been frozen at $2.13 since 1991, would be folded into the minimum wage increase.

This would also mostly impact women, who comprise 66% of workers who make the tipped minimum wage, and especially women of color, according to Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage.

“It is a majority female workforce, disproportionately women of color, struggling to make ends meet,” Jayaraman said on a call with reporters on March 1, referring to workers who are most subject to the tipped minimum wage.

Queer and trans people often are only able to find work in certain industries due to endemic discrimination in hiring. In several series I have done for PGN in the past two years on LGBTQ poverty, lack of access to well-paying jobs was a consistent problem among LBT women I interviewed.

In an investigative report I did in 2018 for DAME magazine on women as the working class and another I did for the magazine in 2019 on women and poverty, the issue was consistently the same: Women are disproportionately in fields where the pay is low. In many states, even jobs that are perceived as white collar, like teaching assistants, are paid minimum wage. That is true in Pennsylvania which, unlike some other states like New Jersey, has not independently raised the minimum wage.

There are no good arguments against raising the minimum wage, but myriad arguments for the rise. A $15 minimum wage would begin to reverse decades of growing pay inequality between the most underpaid workers and workers receiving close to the median wage, particularly along gender and racial lines.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, minimum wage increases in the late 1960s accounted for 20% of the decrease in the Black/white earnings gap in the years that followed. Concomitantly, failures to increase the minimum wage substantially after 1979 account for almost half of the increase in inequality between women at the middle and bottom of the wage distribution.

The benefits to a $15 minimum wage would generate $107 billion in higher wages for workers and would also benefit communities across the country. Underpaid workers spend much of their extra earnings. Adding to their wages would help stimulate the economy and spur greater business activity and job growth at a time when that is sorely needed due to the crisis caused by the pandemic.

The numbers on how lives would improve with a raise in the minimum wage to $15 are staggering as they are illuminating. Black and Latinx workers are paid between 10% and 15% less than white workers overall in the same industries, so nearly one-third (31%) of Black people and one-quarter (26%) of Latinx would get a raise if the federal minimum wage were increased to $15, with women being the majority of the beneficiaries.

According to every metric nationally, a single adult without children needs at least $31,200 — what a full-time worker making $15 an hour earns annually — to achieve an adequate standard of living that pays the bills: housing, food, utilities.

In addition to including the federal minimum wage increase in the COVID relief package, the House reintroduced the Raise the Wage Act. As with Biden’s stimulus plan, the act would raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2025 and eliminate the tipped minimum wage.

It’s long past time to raise the minimum wage and end gendered wage poverty in America. The time is now. The opportunity is now. Senate Democrats can and must do this.

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